It comes to us from sportswriter Peter King that this past summer, in training camp, Peyton Manning developed a fancy new practice method in which a team cameraman took up a spot in the defensive secondary. From there, he would train his camera on Manning's eyes, videotaping them, presumably to give the Indianapolis Colts quarterback an idea of how an opposing cornerback might read him.
King, alas, doesn't dwell on this any longer. But this sort of thing—the kind of creepily involved training a quarterback might undergo if he were coached by Philip K. Dick—goes to the heart of the world's problem with Peyton Manning. The Colts quarterback, it seems, is a big ol' dork.
Manning's stardom has always been problematic. He is indisputably the best quarterback of our day, one of the greats of all time, the scion of an eminently likable signal-calling dynasty, a player who combines prodigious physical gifts and an instinctive feel for the game. And yet, on the eve of the biggest game of his career, he finds himself scorned, mocked, and generally loathed in any part of the country that is not Indianapolis, Tennessee (where he played college ball), the Garden District of New Orleans (where he was raised), or Madison Avenue (where he pitches Gatorade, DIRECTV, Sprint, ESPN, MasterCard, and Reebok, among others). A victory on Sunday, and Canton can go ahead and commission the bust. But nobody, not even Time magazine, wants to cheer for him.
Of course, if we're to believe any of the journalism escaping from Miami this week, the formerly petulant Manning has, at last, "matured." He is "new and improved," a far, far cry, apparently, from that awful, callow thing who tossed a league record 49 touchdowns two years ago. Manning, it is said, has finally figured out how to win the Big Game, something he has supposedly failed to do over his previous eight years in the league. It goes without saying that these are entirely phony story lines, cheap even by the standards of Super Bowl week, where sensible journalism goes to die. (For one thing, this all presumes the quarterback is the author of everything that transpires on the field and is therefore responsible for the outcome of the Big Game. Somebody should tell Jerry Kramer.) But the pundits' point is abundantly clear: Manning has finally achieved greatness because he no longer comports himself, if I may channel Chuck Klosterman for a moment, like Samuel "Screech" Powers.
Appraising a Great Quarterback is a messy business, and not just on account of the football. A Great Quarterback is an American mascot, having wholly supplanted the cowboy as the country's standard of manliness. He has all the qualities desired in a leader. He is quiet and smoldering and unafraid to get a little dirt on the uniform; a field general, tactically brilliant, unfailingly chivalrous. Sammy Baugh fits. So do Otto Graham, Johnny Unitas, Joe Montana, Brett Favre, and Tom Brady. Erwin Rommel, too, but that's another story.
One thing a Great Quarterback cannot be, however, is a nerd. More than any sport, football has been slow to embrace its inner geek (or outer geek, for that matter). It is a game still played by a fraternity of big, violent men according to a macho code. That's why Manning, in the popular imagination, remains somewhere on the edges. Manning has never been a jock. He doesn't look the part, all pouts and frantic gestures. He geekily immersed himself in football's nuances at an early age, learning seven-step drops as a 4-year-old and shortly thereafter developing an almost autistic devotion to film study. In college, Todd Helton, the baseball player and former Tennessee quarterback, dubbed Manning "R2-D2." (It's interesting to note that if Manning were a head coach today, the obsessive film study and attention to detail would get him labeled a genius, a la Belichick.)
All this came at some expense to Manning's social development, it would seem. A 1999 profile in Sports Illustrated spent most of its time chortling good-naturedly over Manning's various gaucheries: the name written on the inside of the jeans; the bafflement over a can opener; the underwear turned inside out (so he wouldn't have to use the confounding washing machine). As a childhood friend of Manning's told SI: "He's too easy to make fun of. He's mature beyond his years as a public figure, and he has an amazing grasp of what to do on the field, but he can't do anything else on his own. He's always going to be the guy who steps in dog poop, and every time he eats a sandwich or a hamburger, he'll end up with ketchup down his leg, mustard on his ear." Rain Man, the quarterback.
Manning, at times, is every bit as insufferable as he's reckoned to be. There are the occasional impolitic quotes, and you can frequently discern the sense of entitlement of a kid born into football royalty. He gives very little of himself, preferring instead the careful cultivation of his own image—in bars, Manning would sometimes keep his beers out of sight, fearing what people might think of him. This is partly why so many fans and writers recoil at his many commercials. (The other reason is their sheer ubiquity, and Manning's, which is a comical complaint coming from the very media that enable Manning's ubiquity.)
"His affability takes on an overtone of insincerity," writes one critic. "After the fourth Peyton Manning endorsement, it takes a pretty lunkheaded viewer not to realize he's only in it for the money." No, it takes a lunkheaded viewer not to realize it after the first commercial. Besides, the spots aren't all that bad. The most memorable of the bunch has him cheering on a series of commoners, in the manner of a rabid sports fan: "Let's go, insurance adjusters, let's go!" For what it's worth, he has a better comic instinct than Tom Brady.
None of this stuff is Manning's problem, though. This lies with the fans, who now seem to indulge in a sporty sort of phrenology, by which the character of a man is sussed from a MasterCard commercial and a highlight on ESPN. "It's just impossible to root for the guy," wrote Matt Taibbi in one sustained rant, "which is not something one says about all the other Great Quarterbacks Who Do Not Play For Us. Brett Favre, an unmistakably three-dimensional human being, is easy to root for." Or there's this: "He is not a person you would invite over for dinner, nor is he a person that you would want to spend your Saturday with. Rather, he is the person you would be wondering about. Some people would feel sorry for him."